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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Redshirting Isn’t Just for Sports ... but Does It Work?

By Peter DeWitt — September 29, 2013 3 min read
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Redshirting is a popular practice in sports. It is meant to give an athlete the opportunity to grow for a year to help better prepare them for competition. That extra year of preparation will hopefully make them stronger, faster and more focused....which will result in wins for the team.

Over the years, redshirting has become a practice in elementary school as well. Not for athletics, but for gaining a competitive edge in the classroom...yes, I’m serious.


Kindergarten is a high pressure situation these days. It’s no longer about students learning to tie their own shoes, buckle their seat belt on the bus, and singing the alphabet song. Kindergarten is now about gaining a competitive edge over peers so that students will some day get into Harvard.

Ok, maybe not Harvard, but schools hear a lot about college and career ready, and it begins in kindergarten. Parents think and over-think whether they should send their children to school at age 4 or wait until they are 5 so they have a year of maturity. But a recent article makes me wonder if that year of maturity really matters.

I recently read a great N.Y. Times article about redshirting which you can read here. Maria Konnikova writes that, “Redshirting is the practice of holding a child back for an extra year before the start of kindergarten, named for the red jersey worn in intra-team scrimmages by college athletes kept out of competition for a year.”

And the statistics on redshirting in kindergarten show a growing trend. Konnikova writes, “It is increasingly prevalent among parents of would-be kindergartners. In 1968, four per cent of kindergarten students were six years old; by 1995, the number of redshirted first- and second-graders had grown to nine per cent. In 2008, it had risen to seventeen per cent.”

Why Redshirt?

Konnikova writes that,

It's this competitive logic, rather than genuine concern about a child's developmental readiness, that drives redshirting. Many parents decide to redshirt their children not because they seem particularly immature or young but because they hope that the extra year will give them a boost relative to their peers. In light of modern competitive demands, why wouldn't you want your child to have that edge?"

Honestly, many kindergarten teachers and school leaders believe that redshirting is a good idea, especially when it comes to the recent adoption of the Common Core State Standards. Although most states have adopted the standards in the past couple of years, and the data is from well before the adoption began, the data still provides a bit of myth busting. Unfortunately, not everyone thinks about redshirting, nor are they in the position to do it.

Konnikova goes on to write,

The psychologist Betsy Sparrow calls it "gaming the system"--and the data on who chooses to redshirt bears out that classification: the people most likely to redshirt their children are those who can most afford to do so--that is, the white and the wealthy. Families in the highest socioeconomic quintile are thirty-six per cent more likely to redshirt their children than those in the lowest, and while close to six per cent of white children are redshirted, the figure falls to two per cent for Hispanic children, and less than one per cent for their black peers."

According to Konnikova, redshirting does not give students a competitive edge over their peers. She writes,

The researchers discovered that relatively more mature students didn't have an academic edge; instead, when they looked at their progress at the end of kindergarten, and, later, when they reached middle school, they were worse off in multiple respects. Not only did they score significantly lower on achievement tests--both in kindergarten and middle school--they were also more likely to have been kept back a year by the time they reached middle school, and were less likely to take college-entrance exams.

However, she went on to say that the “The less mature students, on the other hand, experienced positive effects from being in a relatively more mature environment.”

In the End

It seems as though parents are feeling more and more pressure to make sure they make the right decision where kindergarten is concerned. Many want their children to start when they meet the age requirement, while others are trying to be more proactive and give their children the competitive edge by holding them for a year.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s less about being younger or older...and more about helping children find resilience. After all, we cannot prepare for the life events that happen. As much as we may try to plan out our lives and the lives of our children we can’t control everything. And who would want to anyway? Some of the best things that can happen to us are the things we never plan for.

I turned five on the first day of kindergarten, so I was in-line with my peers. Unfortunately, I was retained in fourth grade which made me older than my peers. After becoming a sub-sophomore because I lacked the number of credits to be a full-fledged sophomore, I became even older than my peers. By the time I made it through my third community college to successfully get my bachelor’s degree at the age of 25, I once again found myself older than my peers.

However, something changed along the way. I earned my master’s degree in Ed Psych and an advanced degree in administration, and then became a principal at the age of 36. I earned my doctorate at 40, and then was told I was so young. I spent so many years worrying about being older than everyone else that I missed when I became younger than everyone else. All of that worrying for nothing.

Perhaps it’s not about he age we start something but how we approach life and use the years we have.

Peter will be sitting on a panel to discuss school climate at NBC’s Education Nation on October 8th at noon.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.